QIQIHAR, Northeast China - Men's ice hockey, one of the most popular and exciting events in the world, is in bottleneck in China.
Although there were nine teams competing in the men's ice hockey tournament of the 11th Chinese National Winter Games, only the last game tonight between Harbin and hosts Qiqihar drew many spectators and journalists.
Harbin, who were beaten by Qiqihar 3-1 in the final of the 10th National Winter Games, took a revenge tonight, upsetting Qiqihar 4-1 to take the title. Most of the Chinese national squad members are from Harbin and Qiqihar.
The bronze medal went to Jiamusi, who lost to Harbin 12-1 on Saturday and Qiqihar 11-1 on Friday.
Though the final was breathtaking and wonderful, experts are not quite happy with the results and they are worrying about the future of Chinese men's ice hockey.
"The final is wonderful, but the other matches were not," said Yu Tiande, director of the ice hockey department of General Administration of Sport on Sunday. "This shows Chinese men's ice hockey is in bottleneck. There are lots of problems in the development."
"We don't have enough reserve force," said Yu. "It is one of the most important problem."
"Although many people like ice hockey very much, few of them are willing to take it as a career," said Yu. "Most are amateurs, so the level of backup force are very low."
The three teams from Heilongjiang province qualified for the top three round-robin comfortably as they beat all the other two opponents in their respective groups with a large margin.
"It's no surprise," said Yu. "There are about 12 players in Harbin play in the national team, so does Qiqihar. The national team is almost formed by the two teams."
"Other teams cannot compare with Harbin and Qiqihar," Yu said. "Even the players are professional, like Jiamusi, Songyuan and Beijing, the standards are quite low due to poor training, not to mention Hong Kong and Macao which are formed by amateurs."
"To be frank, the level of Chinese men's ice hockey is still in 1980s and almost made no improvement since then," Said the worried Yu.
"We should learn from South Korea, whose ice hockey develops quickly these years," Yu added.
At present, the most important thing for the national team is to perform well in the matches of 2008 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships Division II in Australia this April in order to get back to Division I. China lost all five group matches in 2007 Worlds Division I and relegate to Division II last April.
"Our aim is to get back to World Championships Division I this year," said Yu. "Although it will still be a question whether we can stay in Division I if we succeed, we will do our best."
According to Yu, the national team are quite weak in defense. A new coach might be a good way to solve the problem. "We will employ a new foreign coach."
"The level of the coach is also a big concern," said the director. "The coaches of lots of countries are better than us."
"We are not as rich as countries like Japan and South Korea, who pay the coach much more than us as 150,000 to 160,000 U.S. dollars a year," Yu said. "We can only pay less than 40,000 dollars a year. So find a good coach is not easy."
"But we can see there is some hope in men's ice hockey," said Yu. "In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, some children are interested in the sport. Maybe one day some of them are willing to be professional players."
However, except these big cities and north China, ice hockey is not popular in China.
One reason of the unpopularization might be its high cost. According to Yu, a normal equipment for ice hockey costs almost 10,000 yuan (about 1,400 U.S. dollars), and a goalkeeper's gear is even more expensive, which costs about 30,000 yuan (about 4,000 dollars). What's more, the expense of renting a ice hockey rink and the pay of employing a coach are all not cheap.
"Most families cannot afford the high expense," Yu said.
As to Yu, the education system in China is also a reason for the bottleneck.
"Most parents want their children to study hard and find a decent job rather than be professional athletes in such an unpopular sport," Yu explained.